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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – After the release of a group of Egyptian Christians abducted in Libya, a leading human rights organization said that “Christians from sub-Saharan Africa face a toxic mix of racism and religious hostility” in the North African country.
The six men, all from the village of Alharja South in the southern Egyptian region of Suhag, had travelled to Libya for work. They were illegally taken at a checkpoint on Feb. 6 and transported to an unknown destination. They were released on Feb. 18.
Reports say they were tortured and were treated even worse once their abductors discovered they were Christians.
In a report, Christian Solidarity Worldwide said they were held in a small, crowded room with an exposed toilet, and were only released after a ransom $15,000 was paid.
CSW has welcomed the release but insists that it has nothing to do with a willingness on the part of the Libyan government to show tolerance towards Christians, or foreign nationals.
“It’s important to note that the men were released following the payment of a ransom. However, we consider raising awareness of the case, an important part of our advocacy, alongside calling for the action that would prevent this from happening again to anyone else,” said Kiri Kankhwende, CSW’s press officer.
She noted that Libya has become “a divided and lawless failed state which remains unsafe for its own citizens, and even more unsafe for foreign nationals, who are viewed by criminal elements as a source of illicit income. “
Kankhwende said the security situation in the country has led some western governments like the U.S. and the UK to advise their citizens against travelling to Libya “due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict.”
She said the Egyptians were initially targeted because they were foreign nationals, but “their treatment deteriorated significantly once they were discovered to be Christians.”
“The fact that they were targeted so near to the anniversary of the murders of the 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State (IS) terrorists, appears to have been coincidental. However, the fate of the men could have been far worse, as IS , al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to operate in Libya. “
The Islamic State Group murdered a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians on Feb. 15, 2015. They released a video of IS militants beheading the Christians on a Libyan beach.
“Additionally, the Libyan authorities have taken no action to assist the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants, largely from sub-Saharan Africa, who are more or less trapped in Libya following agreements that effectively outsourced the EU’s border policy to the Libyan Coast Guard amongst others, who suffer racism and appalling mistreatment. Those, who like the Egyptian workers, fall into the hands of diverse criminal groups or traffickers, face torture, sexual violence, extortion and forced labor,” Kankhwende told Crux.
“Those detained in official centers still suffer similar fates, while those not as yet detained live precarious lives in communities where they are vulnerable to multiple abuses ranging from physical and sexual violence to trafficking and forced labor,” she added.
She said anti-Western sentiments are strong and widespread in Libya, and there is “a concomitant hostility towards Christianity, which continues to be equated with the West, despite the preponderance of sub-Saharan Christians in the country.”
“Christians from sub-Saharan Africa face a toxic mix of racism and religious hostility, giving rise to a multitude of violations, including kidnapping for ransom, arbitrary detention, attacks on their homes, shootings, and attacks, vandalizing and even demolitions of their churches,” she continued.
In 2022 for instance, a court ordered the eviction of The Union Church from the premise it has used for over 50 years. The church was established by expatriate Christians in 1962 and is one of five denominations recognized by the government.
“The Tripoli-based Internal Security Agency (ISA) is increasingly cracking down on freedom of religion or belief and the associated freedom of expression,” Kankhwende said. In 2021, a Christian living in Tripoli was detained by ISA and accused of attempting to convert others to Christianity.
In September 2022, the Court of Appeal of Misrata, in Libya, sentenced a Christian convert from Islam to death for apostasy. Although Libya has no law against apostasy, the decision was based on a law enacted by the General National Congress, the elected legislative body between 2012 and 2014, under which an apostate can be executed if they do not repent.
CSW’s Founding President Mervyn Thomas has blamed the Libyan government for failing to contain what he termed “the dangerous extremist and criminal groups operating in the country, and warned that such failure means that “abductions for ransom will persist.”
“While recognizing that the situation in the country remains fragile and insecure, we nonetheless call on the Libyan authorities to do far more to discourage abductions and secure the release of all who are still in captivity, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or belief. We also urge the international community to offer greater assistance to the Libyan government to tackle criminality and insecurity,” he said.
Of Libya’s 7 million inhabitants, just about 35,400 – around 0.5 percent – of the population identify as Christians. Libya ranks 5th in the World Watch List which is Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution.